LeLis continue to falter: Want to know the science behind it?

The LeLis (left-liberals) of India are devastated. They seem to be incapacitated profoundly than ever in the past.

Why?

Because they predicted the mood of the nation wrong (you may say that’s typical, but we will park it for now). They could not see what was right in front of them. Although the lesion (prediction itself) was small, the agony (that they got it wrong) was unbearable. They became victims of a psychological phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’. Interesting? Read on.

Scott Plous presented this idea in his famous book ‘The psychology of judgment and decision making’. He discussed various questions- “how do people make decisions? How do they sift through the information without drowning in a sea of alternatives? And what are the factors that lead them in a certain direction?” In the quest to answer these questions, he presented the idea of ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses!

Too technical?  Let me simplify it for you.

Confirmation bias is, in simple words, bias. Analysis typically happens in three levels: a) gathering information, b) remembering information, and c) interpreting information. When people are obsessed with certain ideologies, bias creeps into their analysis. They collect data according to their bias. They selectively remember facts. As a result, their interpretation is generally flawed. This effect is much stronger for desired outcomes, emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.  

The 2019 general elections perfectly fit the bill. The LeLis were frustrated with what they perceived as right-wing politics and wanted to get back to the so-called secular roots (desired-outcome). The abuses that were hurled in the campaign establish the fact that all the parties are emotionally charged. In their mind, 2019 was an ideological war between their deeply entrenched beliefs and an ideology that they perceived as a threat to India’s secular and constitutional fabric.

Although all the parties looked at the same evidence, the disagreement became more extreme.  This is called ‘attitude polarization’. Let’s look at two examples.

Firstly, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It is a nationwide campaign in India to improve overall hygiene and cleanliness in the country. One of its main aims was to achieve an open-defecation free India by 2019 by constructing 90 million toilets at a whopping USD 30 billion expense. The government has built 86 million toilets since 2014, reducing the number of people who openly defecate from over 550 million to under 150 million by 2018.

During the election season, there were studies done and surveys that showed many people still do not use the toilets. The SBM campaign has been sharply criticized for using coercive approaches to force people to use toilets.  And so on.

This is where the ‘attitude polarization’ took effect. The government looked at the data and declared that the mission is pretty much on its way to achieve its stated goals with providing this service to over 400 million people. However, the same data is perceived by LeLis differently. They termed the mission to be a failure attributing to the facts such as toilets were built, but there was no water to use them, or people who defecate in the open were shamed, bullied, denied ration, or even in some extreme cases, were arrested.  

Talk about ‘looking at the same evidence, drawing completely different conclusions!

While there is no argument about the fact that there is much to achieve in the Swachh Bharat Mission, completely dismissing the work done has adversely impacted the conclusions. That is precisely what has happened here. The confirmation bias crept into LeLis’ analysis at all the levels- information gathering, remembering, and interpreting. The fact that the common man of the country witnessed the delivery of a promise, without having to pay any bribe, perhaps happened for the first time in independent India. This big picture was lost due to confirmation bias in the LeLis’ analysis.

Another example is the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. The scheme was launched in 2016 to distribute 50 million LPG connections to women of BPL (below poverty line) families. The number crossed 58 million by 2018, and the government has redefined the scope to reach out to 80 million poor households. Over 40% of the beneficiaries were families belonging to the scheduled caste and tribes. The scheme led to an increase in LPG consumption by 56% in 2019 as compared to 2014.

And then there were studies, surveys, and reports published on how the scheme was a failure.  Data was sliced and diced to support this conclusion. Several arguments were made in its favor like the number of gas connections were rising faster than the sales of LPG cylinders, the average number of cylinders used in a year has come down, over 37% of the households in rural areas procure cooking fuel for free, etc.  

This led to one sweeping conclusion: that the poor were not able to afford the cost of LPG refills and that the scheme has failed.

This is where the aspect of interpreting ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position comes into play. The LeLis’ beliefs persisted in spite of the contrary evidence. This condition is called ‘belief perseverance’ in psychology. It is further supported by the irrational primacy effect where people tend to rely significantly on information encountered early in a series.

And thus they missed the bus. As it happened in the case of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, people perhaps for the first time since independence, experienced delivery of a promise, without having to pay any bribe. The LPG cylinder is right there, in front of them, in their kitchen. Yes, it is true that the pricing model should be made better. And yes, it is true that the money-making-opportunities for the poor and oppressed should improve. But that does not negate the fact of physical delivery of the service.

If you were to analyze the other issues of the election raised by the LeLis, the agrarian distress, lack of jobs, breakdown of the institutions, you find a pattern. As long as the LeLis live in denial, their predictions are not going to get any better. They are going to be disconnected from the ground realities. Although they use data to support their arguments, their analysis conclusions are impacted due to confirmation bias, attitude polarisation, and belief perseverance.

That’s folks, living in a fool’s paradise. And one day, forced to wake up to a sudden, rude, shocking reality.

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